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How to get the most out of B2B CRM

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Snapshot : In this article, we look at how Business-to-Business (B2B) works, with a focus on how it uses CRM. Learn how the B2B buying process works and where B2B CRM fits in. We share details of a B2B CRM project we worked on, how it worked, and how it connected to other marketing activities. We finish with a run-down on the skills you need to run successful B2B CRM programs.

Last time we wrote about Customer Relationship Management (CRM), we got through the basics of the topic. For example, where it fits into the brand development process and the marketing plan.

We also covered examples of CRM activity you could do to drive customer loyalty.

We felt it was worth going back to CRM though, as there’s clearly more to it. Much more. 

In particular, CRM often plays a important role in Business-to-Business (B2B) marketing. 

Two women wearing business clothes sat next to each other at a desk looking at paperwork and taking notes

We haven’t written a lot on B2B, so let’s start with some context. Why are B2B customers different, and what does that mean for your B2B CRM program?

B2B Context - What’s different?

In Business-to-Consumer (B2C) marketing, the buying process is fairly simple. 

The customer decides what to buy, buys it and the consumer consumes.

Sometimes customer and consumer are the same (stuff you buy  for yourself) and sometimes they’re different (if you buy something for someone else, or they buy something for you). 

In Business-to-Business (B2B) marketing though, it’s different. It’s more complex. 

Close up of two hands in a handshake

The customer buys on behalf of their business. There’s usually business processes which govern what they buy and how they decide what to buy. Their decisions can affect everyone in the business, and there’s also a need to be transparent in how buying decisions are made.

B2B customers are usually either :-

  • procurement specialists – their job is to negotiate the best deal on items like office equipment, company cars or raw materials.
  • decision influencers – expert professionals who apply their specialist knowledge to recommend the best products to buy.

Price usually drives the buying decision with procurement specialists. You can use a wider range of marketing activities with decision influencers, so that’s the group we focus on in this article.

Professional and informed decisions

B2B customers mostly put their personal buying preferences to one side. They take a professional approach to the buying decision. There’s more at stake. The spends are bigger and the decision affects more people. So B2B buying works more slowly, and more thought goes into it. 

There’s a need to gather information before making decisions. B2B customers compare options and evaluate them with relevant people in the business. They make an informed decision only after they’ve gone through these steps. 

There’s less emotion involved in the decision than in most B2C buying decisions. B2B buyers make rational decisions. They often have to justify their decisions, so clear rationale benefits work well for them.

The influence of culture and processes

The B2B buying approach is heavily influenced by the organisation’s culture and processes.

In areas such as healthcare, education and law, professional integrity underpins buying decisions. Rational decisions that can be validated are the rule, and there’s rarely room for emotion.

There are often controls and systems to validate the integrity of the buying process. 

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

For example :- 

  • committees who approve decisions so there’s no individual bias.
  • rules and checklists governing what buyers and recommenders can do.
  • complex submission, approval and review processes for big buying decisions. 

Organisations set up these controls because there’s usually a lot at stake in the B2B buying decision. A B2B sale will involve much more value than a single B2C sale. 

More value per sale and per customer

A B2B sales buys products for the business, not for an individual. It covers more people and that means bigger quantities and bigger values. 

To the B2B seller, that means the value of an individual B2B customer is high. If you can influence that customer to regularly buy from or recommend you, you can drive a high level of on-going sales. 

Because of the that extra value, B2B businesses often invest in :-

  • sales teams to contact customers and have one-to-one selling conversations. 
  • meetings, events and other public relations activities to build connections.
  • B2B CRM systems to manage customer relationships long-term. 

B2B Case Study - context

To bring B2B to life, we’re going to use a case study based on a B2B business we used to work with. We’ll outline their context, and then focus in on their B2B CRM program. 

We’ll have to obscure some of the facts (the company name, category and target audience for example) to protect their anonymity.

But from a learning point of view, it’s close enough to what happens in real B2B businesses.

Let’s call this business “Sustenagen”.

Mock up logo for Sustenagen brand - health and well-being

It makes medical devices which it sells to consumers and hospitals. They see Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) – doctors and physiotherapists – as their main B2B customers. These B2B customers decide which products to use in hospitals and make recommendations to their patients.

Sustenagen believe their product is the most advanced on the market. Quality is high and it has many functional benefits. It’s the most premium priced product in the category. Its brand essence centres around expertise in health and well-being. 

That comes through in their choices of tangible brand assets. For example, their brand colours are purple which signifies authority and blue which signifies trust and calmness. (see our article on colour psychology in marketing for more on this). 

Their intangible brand assets such as their values and personality, include words like “confident”, “expert”, “pioneering”, and “the best”. Their brand tone of voice is rational and professional. They regularly refer to scientific research and reports.

(Note, this is a very common approach to competitive strategy with healthcare businesses).

B2B to drive HCP recommendation

The rules around advertising medical products limits how much they can market to consumers. For example, they can’t advertise certain products, and have to be careful about claims they make.

Instead, they prioritise B2B activities to drive HCP recommendation of their products. The HCP is perceived as an unbiased expert adviser. Their recommendation influences buying decisions at a hospital and individual patient level.

There’s two clear benefits to this HCP focus. 

Doctor in white coat holding a stethoscope with arms crossed

Firstly, the HCP usually makes the same recommendation to all their patients patients. Win that recommendation and you drive sales with all those patients. The value of the recommendation on sales is very high. 

Also, there’s a regular churn of patients. When they get better, they stop buying. But there’s hardly any churn with the HCPs, unless they retire. They stay in the category (and make recommendations) for a long time. This lifetime engagement value makes the value of their recommendation on sales even higher.

Their goal is to persuade HCPs that Sustenagen products offer superior health benefits. HCPs will recommend what they believe to be superior products. 

Activities

Sustenagen’s HCP marketing plan focuses on 3 areas of brand activation :-

  • advertising in relevant journals to drive awareness.
  • face to face selling via a national sales team to drive trial and maintain loyalty
  • their B2B CRM system which connects these other two activities by driving consideration. 

These channels all connect with each other. The advertising regularly promotes content and resources on the CRM program for example. The customer database integrates all the interactions with the sales team and the CRM program into a single customer view.  

High priority HCPS (e.g. ones who don’t currently recommend) get the most attention from the sales team. Sales team members can check the the HCP’s details in the customer database before they meet them, and go in better prepared knowing the history of previous contracts. 

The B2B CRM system helps the business keep in touch with those who are visited less frequently. (e.g. customers who already recommend). 

It’s also used to send out invites to HCP events organised by the sales team. At these events, expert speakers talk about relevant topics. The invites are targeted. The HCP has to have a known interest in the topic, and live within a reasonable travelling distance.

Let’s look at how all this works in practice. 

B2B CRM - Membership

The key entry point to the program is the sign-up and membership section on the B2B CRM website. The entry point is important. It sets the expectation for everything which follows. (see our design psychology article for more on entry points).

Signing up gives the HCPs access to more valuable content, especially the popular downloadable resources. The brand team work hard to make sure content and resources are genuinely valuable to the HCP. They’re developed by experts and designed to be educational and practical. 

There’s much evidence the “promise” of the B2B CRM program works. Membership growth is consistently strong and unsubscribe rates are less than 10% per year. 

B2B CRM - Regular contact

Once the HCP signs up, they get a welcome email and a few days later, a welcome box in the mail. This box is packed with relevant printed materials and practical items to use in their practice.  

For example, they get a product comparison chart. This highlights the features and benefits of all products in the category.

They use independent experts to create this chart. The company trusts that HCPS will compare the facts on each product, and work out that Sustenagen is superior to competitors.

Delivery driver handing over a cardboard box, with a Sustenagen logo on it

B2B CRM - quarterly newsletter

HCPs also then get a quarterly newsletter. This is the backbone of the B2B CRM program and goes out to every contact in the B2B CRM database.

However, though it appears to be one newsletter, there are in fact three slightly different versions. Each version has the same core articles. But the introduction and call to action change based on the HCP’s role – doctor, physiotherapist or “other”. 

The “news” in this newsletter includes :-

  • details of new resources and materials.
  • information about updates to the product or packaging.
  • a calendar of upcoming HCP events. 

B2B CRM - e-mail contact

Separate to the newsletter, the B2B CRM program also sends out targeted emails. 

These are specific to the HCP’s role (e.g. doctor-focussed content content) and location. (e.g. details of nearby upcoming events). 

There’s an average of around three emails contacts with HCPs between each quarterly newsletter, though it can vary depending on their role and location. 

B2B CRM - website content

The B2B CRM website is where HCPs interact with the brand online. It acts as a central hub of information, an has good SEO ranking and many backlinks.

It’s regularly updated with new content. This includes useful articles, information and references for HCPs to use in their day to day jobs.

There’e also relevant information about the products and the science behind them. 

The resources page is very popular. Here, HCPs can download articles, tools and other materials. 

Women typing on a laptop with a stethoscope on the desk next to her

They can also request physical items be sent out to them e.g. information guides, practical tools, branded stationery and memory sticks.

B2B CRM - Event calendar

The website also has a calendar of HCP events. Visitors can filter these by topic, date and location.

HCPs can directly book tickets via the website. For some events, they can sign up for webinar broadcasts to view live or watch afterwards. 

Event speakers are all expert HCPs with a relevant and interesting topic to share. The event information shares their bios with the audience. 

They’re paid for speaking at the event.

A row of people sitting in the audience taking writing notes into their notebooks

B2B CRM - Sales team face-to-face meetings

On the website, there’s also contact information for head office and for each sales representative by the area they cover.

Before each face-to-face meeting, the sales representative looks at the HCP’s contact history on the CRM database. 

This is a record of their interactions. For example events they attended. Materials they’ve requested or accessed. Summaries of previous meetings. The sales team go into each meeting prepared. 

Female doctor with stethoscope around her neck talking with a female patient

They know the HCP’s interests and previous interactions. No need to repeat previous messages or regather information. If a sales rep leaves, their replacement can get quickly up to speed because all the history is there for them.

B2B CRM - Pulling it all together

Each of these brand activations helps move customers along the brand choice funnel. 

Some content is pushed out to maintain regular contact. The sales force contacts for example, and the regular targeted newsletters and e-mails from the B2B CRM program. But there’s also a lot of pull activities, like the website, the resources and all the events

This might seem complex to manage. But 3 key skills help you pull a B2B CRM program together. 

Project management skills

Firstly, you need strong  project management skills.

There are lots of “mini” marketing projects here like the newsletter content, the event management and the website updates. These need to be briefed, created, approved and dispatched on a regular basis.

Strong project management helps you make sure everything happens when it needs to. 

Customer experience

Then, you need skills in customer experience. Every interaction between the customer and the B2B CRM program is an opportunity to make their lives better. To solve them problems, and educate and inform them. 

You’d also pull on marketing communication skills like advertising, public relations and digital marketing. You need to understand how to brief and manage a co-ordinated activity program to drive awareness, consideration, trial and loyalty.

Marketing technology

Finally, you also need to understand how marketing technology works to run a B2B CRM program.

There’s a necessary set of systems, processes and IT set-up required to make it work seamlessly and to make it secure. 

It needs regular maintenance and upgrades, for example. You need to be across those. 

You need to know how to set up your digital data system. That’s how you make sure each HCP gets an experience tailored to their specific needs. 

overhead shot of many laptops and other pieces of technology on a table

You also need to understand how to pull out the insights that’ll help you know where to improve your B2B CRM program. 

These are just some of the martech challenges you can face with a B2B CRM program.

Did the B2B CRM program work?

This Sustenagen example of a B2B CRM program is based on some work we did a few years ago. At the time it was seen as very successful, with growing membership, and a strong correlation to HCP recommendation. 

We recently checked “Sustenagen’s” current B2B CRM program, and the strategy and activities seem largely the same. This would imply that it’s still working as a B2B CRM program. 

They’ve refreshed the look and feel, but the key messages and customer experience seem much the same as when we worked on this program.  Clearly, there’s a strong proposition that continues to add value. We know their product has continued to grow market share and retains its superiority position.

Net Advocacy Rating

Part of the regular marketing data gathered from this B2B CRM program was a Net Advocacy Rating score (also known as the Net Promoter Score).

We regularly tracked changes in this score and analysed the changes against our sales. 

The correlation between advocacy and sales over time was consistently high.

Though correlation doesn’t imply causation, it was still a strong sign that engaging HCPs with a relevant B2B CRM program had a connection to driving sales. 

Group of game pieces following one game piece with added caption - we love you

Consumers regularly told us that their choices were influenced by the HCP recommendation. It was very clear. Drive recommendation and you drive sales.

The B2B CRM program helped those HCPs engage with Sustenagen. They became better informed about the category and brand, and were more likely to recommend it.

Conclusion - Get the most out of B2B CRM programs

The buying decision in Business-to-business (B2B) marketing can be complex. 

It’s a professional, rather than personal decision. The buying company’s culture influences the decision. There’s a much larger value attached to the decision or recommendation.  

Our example in this article showed how a B2B CRM program isn’t a stand-alone activity. It links together different activities targeting customers at different parts of the funnel. 

Advertising drives customers to your B2B CRM website. Your website signs them up and you contact them regularly with newsletters, emails and events. This gives you a “relationship” to “manage” with the “customer”. They’re happy to hear from you, and to interact with your sales team. 

You need 3 key skills to run a successful B2B CRM program. Project management. Customer experience. Knowing how to set up and use marketing technology. Get those right, and your CRM program will drive your business for years to come. 

Check out our article on the broad principles of CRM to learn more. And contact us if you have a more specific B2B CRM need.

Photo Credits

Two women signing documents : Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Handshake : Photo by Cytonn Photography on Pexels

Hurdles : Photo by Jeremy Chen on Unsplash

Doctor with red stethoscope : Photo by Online Marketing on Unsplash

Diver handing over Sustenagen package (adapted) : Photo by RoseBox رز باکس on Unsplash

Logging on to laptop with stethoscope : Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

People taking notes : Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Doctor in consultation : Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

Laptops : Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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